Vicko Alvarez is a self-identified socialist running for aldermanic office in the 15th Ward. The 34-year-old is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and has been a resident since she moved to Chicago in 2006 to attend The University of Chicago for college. Since then, the native-Texan (or "Tejana") has made a name for herself in union organizing, through community activism, and as a youth arts educator on the city's southwest side. Alvarez's campaign has received endorsements from The People's Lobby, United Working Families, Cook County College Teachers Union, and Northside Democracy For America, among others.
Windy City Times: You're running against Raymond Lopez, who won the previous two terms. What made it the right time for you to run for the 15th ward?
Vicko Alvarez: I have different types of experiences in the neighborhoods throughout the 15th Ward. I first gained experience in electoral politics when I worked on the Chuy [Garcia] mayoral campaign, back in 2015. I have a lot of personal connections in Back-of-the-Yards, and I was employed with The Chicago Parks District in Englewood as an art teacher for a really great teen after-school-program.
As to why I decided to run, when this election cycle was coming up, I started brainstorming with a number of friends who also lived in the 15th Ward to see what the game plan was. My general approach was that we had to find somebody to run against Raymond [Lopez]. I never saw myself as being the "sole person" to run against him, but I knew he couldn't go unchallenged, because it sets a bad precedent. And I knew if I was going to be his challenger, I was going to be night-and-day to this man. Unashamed, completely unabashed…I am to his left. I have no issue with that because, to me, that just means that I actually care about the people here in the 15th Ward.
WCT: How is your campaign ensuring that you are reaching the working-class community and that you're connecting with their experiences?
VO: Electoralism is not a skill set many people have been taught or know how to participate in. Quite frankly, Chicago South Side residents have been let down by so many politicians, so it's hard to get neighbors to engage in that type of process.
Meanwhile, we have a ton of residents that do community organizing every day in their neighborhood. That is something that they're familiar with because it feels tangible, it feels real. It has deliverables. This campaign was always going to be used as a tool for political education and organizing our neighbors. I worked for several years as the Chief-of-Staff for Alderman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez [33rd Ward] and am now able to tell people, "A trash can is the bare minimum of what an alderman can get you." So explaining the technical parts of our job and how a ward office works, how the government works when it comes to neighborhood services.
Once you explain that to people they're like, "Oh, that is the bare minimum." Residents are so used to having these aldermen that don't engage in policy-making. That's just how it's been in Chicago, and that's how it's historically been on the South West Side. But I worked at a ward office where an alderwoman actually pushed for "Treatment Not Trauma," an alternative for mental-health crisis response, and she [Rodriguez-Sanchez] has been pushing for years. So that's how our strategy has beenopening people's eyes to what more an alderman can provide and encouraging our neighbors to demand more from their representatives in the process.
WCT: What would you say are the most pressing issues in your ward that you're championing?
VO: One of them is really simple: ending favoritism. Old-school Chicago politics is very much "scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." On a bigger level, it's definitely going to be reinvestment in public resources. I love talking to "old heads" in the neighborhood because they remember when there used to be trade schools and recreational centers on the block. The parks were much better; they had actual field houses. And I like to reference back to the time when the ward used to be thriving so that people understand that it is possible for the southwest side to see real investments in public resourcesespecially for young people.
We also are currently surrounded by ghost schools. It is so heartbreaking to see all these empty buildings knowing what used to be there. It damages your mental health to know that the city has just given up on your neighborhood and then there's that constant reminder in front of you. It's going to be a big fight but we have to figure out how to reopen these schools.
The parks are going to be another big fight that I take on. I recognize that Chicago Public Schools and the Park District are their own entities, but aldermen have the power and influence to move them. Our park equipment is old and outdatedsome of our parks don't even have field houses or accessible bathrooms. Nobody goes to what isn't accessible. So ending favoritism and investing in public resources in a real way.
WCT: On that subject, Chicagoans seem very divided on the city's approach to "public safety," what is your stance on the matter?
VO: It's no mystery that I've been pinned as the "defund candidate," which is meant to scare neighbors. But when you get down to the nitty-gritty conversations with residents on the South West side, a lot of them have their own stories of negative interactions with police.
During the time that I worked in Englewood with young people, so many of them shared their stories with me about having been harassed and profiled and brutalized. I've heard from neighbors themselves who have tried to offer assistance to somebody leaving the carceral system after 20 years, and receiving no help. It's always people taking care of each other, while also being simultaneously neglected by institutions meant to help them. I think that the more you talk to neighbors and have an honest conversation about policing, the more they're going to share their own experiences.
Aside from that, when it comes to public safety, there isn't a single person who has argued with me, that can't say public safety isn't about investing in young people, public resources, and creating safety nets that prevent people from doing harm in the first place. Even neighbors who have voiced wanting more police presence care about youth. They understand our young people need something to do, they need mentorship, not incarceration.
We have some of the most over-policed neighborhoods in the entire city of Chicago, so we know more police is not the answer. I think that's where we need to make sure that we open up the conversation, because you have Raymond [Lopez] and others that are trying to have one-topic conversations and only talk about increasing policing. You can't do that without talking about the whole picture of public safety.
WCT: The election is less than a month away, how are you feeling about your chances and is there anything you want 15th Ward voters to know?
VO: As ward staffers, we did our best to organize so that the community saw us as a resource. We're pretty confident we're gonna win, but say hypothetically we don't, our office still presented hundreds of people with new skills to be able to take on the fight again in four years. Or let's say that I do win, then we prepared hundreds of people to be the base for re-election in four years. So I think that a big part of the campaign is being able to teach people how to do this and for the right reasons.
One last thing I'll say: If ever there was a moment where we wanted to ask ourselves "what would you do in the face of fascism?"this is it. We currently have an alderman who is inflaming racial division among neighbors and pitching Black, Latino and white residents against each other. He's going to Black neighborhoods and saying "I'll keep out Latinos," then goes into the Latino neighborhoods and says, "I'll keep Black people away." And then he'll go to a white neighborhood and say, "I'm taking care of you first." This is the message of division that he conveys to community members on the southwest side of Chicago. So I really want to make it crystal clear that this election is about getting rid of a fascist.